Sermon for Mirepoix
Sixth Sunday of Easter, 17th May 2020
Readings: Acts 17. 22-34; John 14.15-21
May these words of mine and the thoughts of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord.
In France, on 8th May as part of the VE-Day commemorations, President Macron rekindled the torch at the base of the Arc de Triomphe which is dedicated to an anonymous Soldat Français who died during the First World War. In England, each year on Remembrance Sunday, wreaths are laid at the Cenotaph in London, a memorial to the British Unknown Soldier*.
It is a powerful symbol: a man who sacrificed his life for others, whose identity is lost but who nevertheless provides a focus for those of us who live on. The Unknown Soldier can channel personal grief and other emotions, such as patriotism and dedication, transforming them into something shared, greater than the individual.
When Paul encounters a shrine in Athens to An Unknown God, he immediately recognises its significance. He can take this local religious custom and use it to lead the Athenians towards the truth embodied in Jesus.
This approach was adopted by the Early Church in various ways. We know the reason that we celebrate Christmas when we do is because of the overlap in ideas between the birth of God’s son and the return to lengthening days, a reawakening of the celestial sun. The very name, Yuletide, is derived from a German word referring to the winter solstice. The merriment that accompanies Christmas festivities has more to do with the Roman Saturnalia, held at this time, than any Christian practice. According to the Venerable Bede, writing in 8th century, the word Easter, is derived from the name of the Anglo-Saxon fertility goddess Eostre. This would certainly explain the abundance of eggs and rabbits jostling for space on the supermarket shelves around the time of this Christian festival. And, of course, these symbols of fertility are perfect metaphors for resurrection and spiritual re-birth.
Paul guessed that, by starting with their Unknown God (a deity no doubt created in the image of those who worshipped it), he could lead the Athenians to a clearer understanding of who Jesus was. Paul starts by giving a general overview of this god as creator, fashioning the human race to occupy the earth. He then explains, in verse 27, that God did this so that humanity might seek the deity, feeling their way towards him, and, eventually, succeed in finding him.
I think this is a significant verse. Paul clearly understands that, for many of us, grasping who God is, and our personal interaction with him, are slow, often tentative processes. It is like groping slowly forward in the dark, straining our senses to make sense of where we are. It is also, I think, a very reassuring verse; we can take our time, edging forwards slowly if that is what we need to do whilst knowing that we are on track.
Paul wanted the Athenians to know – he wants us, today, to know – that this slow, tentative spiritual journey does have an end and that it is closer than any of us ever imagined. We only have to look at ourselves to see God reflected; it is humanity, rather than statues carved in hard stone or wrought from metal, that is an expression of God.
I am reminded of William Blake’s poem The Divine Image, which includes these lines:
For Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love,
Is God our Father dear;
And Mercy, Pity, Peace, and Love,
Is Man, his child and care.
For Mercy has a human heart,
Pity, a human face;
And Love, the human form divine,
And Peace, the human dress.
Paul goes on to urge the Athenians to repent, to think again about the way they conduct their lives and confess their sorrow at what they have done amiss. He wants them to place themselves in a right relationship with this God.
He could have stopped here. He has drawn on familiar material. He has encouraged a bit of self-reflection and honesty (never a bad thing at any time). He has said nothing controversial. Wouldn’t it have been better to leave it at that, with his audience all ‘on side’?
He chose to go on. He needed to talk about the resurrection of Jesus: the ‘proof ‘, according to Paul that Jesus is the man appointed by God to judge whether humanity has reformed itself. Unsurprisingly, his listeners are now split right down the middle. They are some who burst out laughing at the absurdity of anyone coming back from the dead. There are others who are intrigued and want to know more. The veracity of this account is underlined by the mention of two new disciples, Dionysius and Damaris, presumably both known to Paul’s associates who could be his witnesses. (Interestingly, Dionysius came to be identified with St Denis, the first Bishop of Paris and the patron saint of France. Though, as Denis lived in the middle of the 3rd century, they cannot have been the same person.)
In the crowd’s reaction to Paul, we have a perfect example of the difficulty experienced by so many good people in taking on board the full Christian message. They cannot make the jump, from a deep recognition that concern for and devotion to humanity is wholly laudable, to believing the ‘rising from the dead’ business. The latter is impossible, running contrary to all the laws of nature. And so it negates the former. Their thinking goes something like this: “If you want me to believe in the holiness (and I’m not even sure I know what that word means) of the natural world and the supreme significance of humanity as an embodiment of all that is good, don’t also expect me to believe that a dead man came to life, thereby breaking all the laws that we know keeps the natural world in harmonious order.”
I must say, I have enormous sympathy for this way of thinking. I whole-heartedly support rational, logical thought. It is the only protection we have got against the insane bigotry that surfaces every now and then, in even the most civilised of places. Reason protects us from the sort of blinkered thinking that sees people destroying telecommunication masts because they think 5G has caused covid-19; that refuses to see the correlation between gun-crime in the United States and the number of mass shootings that occur each year; that still refused to believe the earth travelled in orbit around the sun, centuries after Copernicus and Galileo; that believes autism is caused by the MMR vaccine or that you can be cured of the corona-virus by drinking bleach; that has allowed prejudice and discrimination against different groups of people to flourish through the ages. We definitely need reason to save us from the destructive effects of ignorance.
If the resurrection is at the heart of Christianity, then it is an enormous obstacle for many potential believers who are rational people. For me, the only way around it (and it is a matter of going round the problem rather than understanding it) is to fall back on the Roman Catholic solution and say, “it’s a mystery!” It remains a mystery because we do not yet know enough to be able to see how the laws of nature, as we understand them, are not compromised by either Jesus’ resurrection…or the Virgin birth…or the events at the first Pentecost…or countless other experiences which, for want of a better word, we call ‘miraculous’.
I say ‘if the resurrection is at the heart of Christianity’ because the passage we read from John’s Gospel puts love at the heart of things.
Love, as far as we can tell, is only experienced by humankind. It is the most profound of emotions, capable of extraordinary influence.
Love, says Jesus, should prompt obedience to his commandments. Love should be demonstrative. We know that. We know that to love someone means we must show it. We must shape the way we behave to reflect that love. This calls for more than bringing home the occasional bunch of flowers or planning the cooking around our partner’s favourite meals. It means sacrificing the demands of our ego and putting the beloved before ourselves.
Demonstrating a genuine love for Jesus is productive. It draws out something that Jesus calls the Spirit of Truth which, whatever else it might be or do, is companionable. It forges an indissoluble bond between each of us and Jesus. The love is reciprocated. Not only that, demonstrative, productive love is also dynamic; it unites us with the Father.
And so we are back, if you like, to the Athenians Unknown God, the Lord of heaven and earth (i.e. everything)…who gives life and breath – to everyone, reminding us that we are his children.
The words of Jesus’s, which John records for us in his Gospel, are poetic. They are laced with allusion and their full meaning may escape us. But they are not irrational in the same way that metaphors are not irrational. To say that ‘the storm raged’ is not to mean that the clouds were in a filthy temper, hurling expletives at anyone unfortunate enough to be caught outdoors without an umbrella. Metaphors are a type of bridge allowing us to bring emotion and a sort of aesthetic perception to bear on the concrete, physical, rational world. They are an acknowledgement that the way we interact with the world is more than strictly rational. The writers of Star Trek knew this when they created Mr Spock, the Vulcan. Charles Dickens knew this when he created Thomas Gradgrind in Hard Times. Both Spock and Gradgrind have something missing.
This is not to say that we should abandon rational thought or ignore its fundamental importance. But it is to understand that, alongside reason sits Art. Music is a human construct that exploits the physics of sound, applying rules that make sense of the intervals between notes. But when we listen to a piece of music, our response is far more than an appreciation of the way the sound is constructed. We are also have a response which is aesthetic or emotional. We might find it sublime. There is a neat example of this in E.M.Forster’s novel Howard’s End when the Schlegels listen, in different ways, to Beethoven’s 5th symphony. (It’s Chapter 5, I think.)
So Jesus gives us Love, explaining its dynamic properties in allusive, poetic language. Paul goes for a logical explanation why their Unknown God should lead the Athenians to a recognition of the resurrected Jesus as the route to God. Both approaches put a relationship with Jesus at the centre of things. That is what we have to hold on to.
I am always intrigued by the suggestion, running through the post-Resurrection encounters with Jesus, that he was not immediately recognisable, even to those who had known him best. Mary Magdalene mistakes him for the gardener. The disciples on the road to Emmaus only realise they have been talking to Jesus when he breaks bread for them at the start of their evening meal. When Jesus appears on the shore of Lake Tiberias, we are told that none of the disciples was bold enough to ask the question, ‘Who are you?’. Although they ‘knew he was the Lord’, there remained an uncertainty.
Apart from finding these honest accounts of uncertainty interesting, I also find them comforting. Quite clearly, it is not for us to know everything. We can even make mistakes. There is plenty of evidence that the apostles and Paul were expecting an imminent Second Coming; which never happened. They had misunderstood. So it is not at all surprising if we, a couple of thousand years later, do not fully understand. It is likely that we shall always be ‘feeling our way’, as Paul told the Athenians, trying to square the rational with the emotional, grappling with the metaphorical as well as the actual.
The key thing is the direction of travel. Whoever we are, however confident we might feel in our Faith or our Philosophy, we must shun complacency and acknowledge our limitations striving only to move forward towards that goal, personified by Jesus, where Love draws forth the Spirit of Truth
There is a gravestone in the Oxfordshire village of Sunningwell which carries a beautiful epitaph. It is only recently that I discovered it is from a poem by Rossiter Worthington Raymond, an American of many talents who died in 1918.
Here it is:
“And life is eternal and love is immortal,
and death is only an horizon,
and an horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight.”
*Incidentally, there is a very moving novel (in my opinion) by Anna Hope entitled Wake which revolves around the arrival of the remains of the Unknown Soldier after the end of World War I; I recommend it.